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am 19. September 2000
Compelling and fascinating book on island biogeography and biogeography in general. Another major theme is the decline in biodiversity on our planet. Good discussion on evolution as it relates to this subject, and the coverage on E.O. Wilson's ideas, who wrote the classic work in the area, is also excellent. Quammen visited many of the areas he writes about, for example, Madagascar, where he documents the tragic decline and loss of lemur and prosimian species through the erosion and destruction of the rainforest, and the effects of over-population. As I read this chapter I recalled another poignant observation about the beleaguered island--that space shuttle astronauts could actually see the red soil of Madagascar bleeding into the Indian Ocean from orbit--an appropos if somewhat morbid image for the greater ecological hemorrhaging of our own planet.
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am 2. Juni 1997
Spring 1997. An active volcano on the Caribbean island of Montserrat forced thousands to flee the island. Britain is gripped by the worst drought in two centuries. The koala population in Australia is exploding. Brooklyn's trees are being eaten by the Asian long-horned beetle. If you see no relationship among these events, read David Quammen's superb book, "The Song of the Dodo," and learn about island biogeography, "the study of the facts and patterns of species distribution."

When most people look at animals they only see the animals--tigers, tortoises, hornbills, rhinos and so on. They never ask why an animal is the way it is or how it got that way; where it came from and what it is like. Few wonder why animals are where they are and why they're not where they're not. Quammen does, so he takes readers on an intriguing and fascinating tour of island biogeography that relates the history of famous early biologists from Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace and Joseph Hooker to biogeographers of today like Michael Soulé and Edward O. Wilson.

Quammen's bibliography is 23 pages of references in very tiny type. Fortunately, despite years spent researching Dodo, Quammen wasn't content to spend all his time reading dry academic papers and obscure texts. Instead he broke out his hiking boots and retraced the steps of some of these explorers. He describes his personal experiences colorfully with analogies, anecdotes and descriptions. If you've been to some of the places he describes, you feel like you ought to go back to see through opened eyes. If you haven't been there, you feel like you ought to go--with Quammen's book in your backpack. Here's his description of Komodo dragons being fed a goat carcass by rangers on Komodo Island in Indonesia.

"They snarf and chomp. They gorge. They thrash, they scuffle, they tug and twist. They stir up one helluva ruckus. Within a few seconds they have composed themselves at its axis; elbow to elbow, jaws locked on the meat, tails swinging, they resemble a monstrous nine-pointed starfish. Their round-snouted faces, which looked as gentle and dim as a basset hound's until just a moment ago, have gone smeary with blood. When the goat rips in half, they split into two mobs over the severed halves and the tussling continues. They have each seized a mouthful but the mouthfuls are still held together, barely, by bone and sinew. They wrestle. They lunge for new jaw-grips and clamp down, straining greedily against the tensile limits of the mangled goat.

Much of Dodo is a long tale of complex ecological concepts woven together so that those explored in the beginning are introduced again later. Quammen's observations, historical and personal, are part text, part story. Some are humorous; some are tragic. Plan to read the book at least twice. You may want to start a notebook.

Then, when you finish reading The Song of the Dodo, you might want to take your children to a zoo or natural history museum to show them endangered and threatened animals, birds, reptiles, amphibians insects and plants. You may want to explain that some of these species probably won't be around when their children's children--your grandchildren--are adults. Some species may become extinct in your lifetime. None will ever evolve to fill the void left by extinction. There will be no new rhinos, elephants, grizzlies, gorillas, tigers or anything else.

According to island biogeographers, what islands are good at, whether surrounded by water, farmland or urbanization, is extinction. Parks and preserves just aren't large enough. Nowhere is large enough. You are living among tomorrow's dodos. Some are within a few miles of you.

The Song of the Dodo belongs on every true environmentalist's bookshelf, alongside Aldo Leopold's "Sand County Almanac" and Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring." It should be required reading in any college course that touches on the subject of environment. Quammen, who twice won the National Magazine Award for his writing in Outside magazine, deserves a far more prestigious award for this book.

(This book review first appeared as an article at [...] in the Environment section.)
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am 10. Januar 2000
Part travelogue, part treatise on island biogeography, part portraits of a dozen prominent biologists, part diatribe against loss of wilderness, "The Song of the Dodo" is a massive undertaking. It seems to have been written as much to get it out of Quammen's system as for any imagined reader.
You marvel at the remote corners of the world Quammen visits, and the hardships of getting there. You marvel at the quiet determination with which the unsung field researchers toil away. You marvel at the slow realization among ecologists that "reserves" aren't sufficient to maintain biodiversity over several lifetimes. You bristle at the loss, irretrievably, of unspoiled places through either the bald encroachment of man or, more galling, the benign paternalism of "wildlife managers." In particular, Quammen reveals the devastating legacy of Christian missionaries who brought their lifestyles (and livestock) with them.
In short, "Dodo" is about four books all rolled into one, which makes it a heady undertaking for the reader OR author. Quammen does a pretty good job of organizing his data into a readable narrative, but it may have been more powerful as four separate books, I don't know. Frankly, the chatty endlessly-detailed "A la recherche du temps perdu "-style wore on me after a while, and I read a dozen other books while slogging through this one.
However, along with "The Beak of the Finch" by Jonathan Weiner, Quammen has performed a valuable service by summarizing current thought in the "new synthesis" of evolution. Reading both books gives the lay reader, such as myself, a new appreciation for the delicacy and complexity of life on earth.
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am 5. Oktober 1999
This is one of those books that, picked up on a whim, grabs you by the ears and swings you around to look at the world in a completely different way. I picked it up as an unsuspecting Classics graduate with a mild interest in nature stories and the history of science. I put it down as a newly fledged conservation biologist, having phoned the university to apply for a second Bachelor's degree program halfway through the book. (Actually I think my decision was made around the third chapter, with the description of the Madagascar tenrecs). Quammen's prose is so engaging and his passion for his subject so compelling that I could not help but be converted. That was three years ago; I have since re-read the book at least a dozen times, lent it to any and all of my friends who would stand still long enough to have it thrust at them, and bought a second copy to keep at home when the original is on loan, because I couldn't stand to have it unavailable. I've also bought at least three copies as gifts for friends who exclaimed over it as much as I did... Mr. Quammen, I thank you. However hackneyed the phrase, your book has indeed changed my life.
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This is a near-perfect book for the layman in biogeography (like myself). It is a great mix of theory, history, interviews, accounts of the author's re-tracing of the steps of past and present biogeographers, and the author's tours of wildlife habitats and reserves. The author presents a fair treatment of the "never-to-be-resolved" issue of the true discoverer(s) of "the survival of the fittest/natural selection". I was only let down by the fact that I had finished reading the book (I just wish there was more to read) - but, there is more; a great glossary, a comprehensive bibliography, and a good index. I only wish that the fauna (98%) and flora (2%) presentations could have been more balanced, since I am a plant person. However, the subject matter is fascinating. This was a great read. I learned much of Wallace, Darwin, MacArthur, Edward Wilson, and the modern biogeographical thinkers. I enjoyed the descriptions of the explorations and tours of wildlife habitats. I highly recommend this book, both for adventure and for knowledge.
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am 22. Februar 2000
David Quammen has the makings of an excellent scientist, but I'm glad that his profession is natural history writing. The Song of the Dodo is a fascinating book in many ways. The author presents scientific ideas and scientific personae in a very clear and understandable way and at the same time takes the reader on many enjoyable adventures around the world. The story of the development of the theory of evolution, as seen from the viewpoints of many biologists, is most engagingly told. The book is serious and scientifc, but often also quite funny. The loss of biological diversity on the planet has very serious consequences for the ecological integrity of our planet, yet the book, in discussing the implications of our "age of extinction," is uplifting at the same time. I wish that everyone could appreciate the seriousness of this biological crisis--Mr. Quammen has made an excellent effort to present this subject to the interested reader. It's a wonderful book and I intend to recommend it to everyone!
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am 28. September 1997
Stumbled across this book while re-kindling my interest in science/nature thru browsing is a remarkable journey of thought that connects the power of natural selection to the immense damage of man's quest for domination. Quammen's physical journey around the planet in search of real-life examples of how "islands" impact the evolution of species made this a powerful and thoroughly grounded read. This book now sits atop my "favorite books" list. A suggestion to Mr. Quammen: there seems to be a real connection to island biogeography and the business world...might there be a sequel to this book that explores the possibility that much of our capitalistic, open market economy can be explained (or better yet, predicted) by the theories/laws of nature explored in The Song of the Dodo?
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am 5. Dezember 1999
Granted I rarely read non-fiction, I found this book rather boring and only struggled to read it because I am utterly interested in the subject matter. I read a little over half of it before finally giving up. The writing was just too disjointed, divided in too many little stories that I struggled to connect, given very few hints of what the author's point was. In my opinion, the style was a little too personal for reporting scientific information, and the obsession of the author with degrading Charles Darwin whenever he got a chance was also a turnoff. However, I have to admit that there's a lot of work put into this book, based on the bibliography alone, and it contains a lot of interesting and important information, if you can wade through it.
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am 20. Mai 1999
Clearly Quammen has an interest in biodiversity that goes well beyond authorship. A book that should be required reading, at least in part, by every high school biology student. Assign one or two chapters and it would be difficult to stop reading further. Recommended reading for anyone with an interest in natural science. You will not regret the time spent absorbing fascinating book. If every author that attempted to bridge the "comprehension" gap between the scientist and public was made to measure up to Quammen's standards of research, authorship and understanding, we would not be so easily misled by public relations spin nor our woefully uneducated media.
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am 6. Juli 1999
This book initially both attracted and repelled me. Attracted because the subject matter seemed interesting and important but repelled by the sheer number of pages. I am a full-time grad physics student with a lot of reading to do already so I delayed reading "The Song." I was amazed and informed by the power of the book's content. The other reviewers no doubt have described that. Myself, I have to say that the image of that last dodo falling silent on that distant island not so long ago, has haunted me for months. Quammen sure can write.
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